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DNA forensics isn’t just for identifying human beings. Flora and fauna can also leave traces linking perpetrators to wildlife crimes.
Four defendants pleaded guilty to illegally felling and stealing special maple trees in Washington state – based largely on the genetic identification of the logs by a team from the University of Adelaide in Australia.
The Bigleaf maple trees were allegedly cut down in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in late 2011 and 2012. The mill owner and the three loggers cut down the “figured maple” which is particularly valuable in musical instruments – and the wood was eventually sold for $800,000 on the market.
The four were indicted in August on theft and environmental crimes under the Lacey Act, which regulates trade of wildlife and plants.
The four pleaded guilty recently – and the evidence the Australian scientists and the U.S. Forest Service had stockpiled was published recently in the journal Conservation Genetic Resources.
The scientists teamed up to develop the first DNA profiling reference database for the species – the only one of its kind for trees that’s been validated for use in trials, according to the university.
The logs matched stumps found on the government lands, they added.
“With this technology, wood buyers can verify whether or not Bigleaf maple has been legally harvested,” said Andrew Lowe, chair of conservation biology at the school and chief scientific officer for Double Helix Tracking Technologies. “Our database indicates that, with these markers, the likelihood of two trees having the same DNA profile is as low as one in 418 sextillion; there are thought to be approximately 70 sextillion stars in the universe.”
Eleanor Dormontt, research fellow and timber tracking expert at the University, told Forensic Magazine in emails that the forensic test was developed from 394 individual trees from 43 different locations. Collecting the samples is the time-consuming part, she said.
"That's teh challenge and opportunity fo doing something no one has done before - you have to work out how it needs to be done first," Dormontt said. "Our experience in working this stuff out is part of the value of our service, not just the practicalities of DNA typing trees."
A single log of the valuable maple can fetch $100,000 – and the problem has been rampant in the Pacific Northwest’s public forests, since cases can be so hard to prove.
But the forensic tool to match two parts of the same tree can now build cases, added the Australian researchers.
“Illegal logging is a significant problem across the world, contributing to the destruction of the world’s forests and oppression of many of its most vulnerable people,” said Dormontt. “DNA profiling and tracking of timber provides a means to help curb this illegal activity and support legitimate forest industries.”
The mill owner was accused of continuing the black-market processing and sale of the valuable wood – despite being warned by investigators. The federal authorities said they were taking a strict enforcement of the law in the case – and in future investigations.
“The trees in our national forests belong to all Americans and should not be chopped up to enrich a few,” said Annette L. Hayes, the U.S. Attorney for Washington. “In this case a beautiful and valued resource that is home to endangered species was felled with some parts just discarded on the forest floor. We are prosecuting not only the tree cutters, but also the mill owner who created a market for the sale of this stolen property.”
DNA sequencing is not limited to timber laws. A pair of genetics experts wrote about the use of genetic fingerprinting to solve wildlife crimes in Forensic Magazine’s December issue.